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From: Tim C.
Sent on: Monday, June 24, 2013 11:01 PM



In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

By Frans De Waal

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Review by Tim Campbell


I liked too much of the book and agreed with too much of what author and primatologist Frans De Waal has to say to be overly critical, but there are a few areas in which we disagree!


On the positive side, I agree with his assertion that morality is a bottom-up evolutionary development and decidedly not a top-down set of rules “given” to humanity by a deity or group of deities.  I also agree that religion seems to be a cultural side effect of evolution, invented by humans in order to “bolster the existent social order”.   Also to enable the ruling class to remain as rulers!


De Waal has worked for years with non-human primates: mostly chimps and bonobos. Both apes are very close to humans on the evolutionary bush and all three of us share a number of basic underlying traits. Traits that may well demonstrate the basics of social order, which then evolved into a system of descriptive and prescriptive “morals”, reinforced in part by our own nature and in part by the authority given to religion.


According to De Waal, there are two kinds of morality: one-on-one—how we behave toward other individuals and how they behave toward us specifically—and “community concern”—how our behavior affects society at large.  Observing our close cousins—the other apes—and not coincidentally our more distant cousins the elephants, De Waal concludes that both of these characteristics are present in them and are therefore likely traits that were passed to us by our common ancestors, not “given” to us by the gods.


Such traits that we have mistakenly assumed are unique to humans—altruism, empathy, sympathy, and finally morality—are observed definitively in the behavior and testing of chimps and bonobos.


He is not a Pollyanna however. He discusses the sexual promiscuity among bonobos as a peace-making social effect, but also points out that bonobos can also be territorial and aggressive.  However, the bonobo society is a matriarchal society whereas chimpanzee tribes are very much patriarchal.   It is this basic difference between the two non-human primates that is an interesting aspect of this study and testing.  De Waal’s descriptions of ape behavior and the interactions between ape and scientist form the most fascinating sections of the book.


On the negative side, De Waal criticizes the apparent anti-religion meanness of the so-called neo-atheists: Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al.  Even though he has lived extensively in the United States, he appears to be somewhat sheltered from the anti-science anti-humanist rantings and political maneuvers of the fundaloon crowd.  After listening to these folks attack and use the same foolish arguments over and over, while trying desperately to force the government and education system to accept their pre-science tribal myths as fact and “sound science”, I understand Dawkins’s frustration.  I do not suffer fools either and the hard-core bible-thumping extreme fundaloon tribes are fools.  If hitting them back offends De Waal, he should remember that almost 50% of the American public disbelieves biological evolution.  This is due to the volume of dishonest garbage that emanates from the creationist crowd. 


That said, I would also point out that I agree with De Waal that debating the existence of God IS a futile if not silly enterprise.  The same arguments go back and forth, nothing is actually resolved or proven either way, and both sides claim victory!  Nevertheless, by debating the existence of God, atheists are at least given the opportunity to explain WHY they do not accept the myth stories of religion.  The theists have thousands of pulpits and venues for pushing THEIR beliefs and agendas.  These debates provide something of a forum for rebuttal.  


Later in the book, De Waal accuses the neo-atheists of lacking imagination, that to them, “all that matters is empirical reality, that facts trump beliefs…neo-atheists are like people standing outside a movie theater telling us that Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t really go down with the Titanic.”


Sorry, but that is complete nonsense. De Waal is mistaking the suspension of disbelief that moviegoers engage in when watching a movie with atheists insisting that there was no magical global flood, that it is unlikely that Jesus was a god who was conceived by magic and rose from the dead after being executed.  One simply has to read Dawkins’s THE MAGIC OF REALITY to  see clearly that Dawkins at least is very comfortable with that form of magic that is illusion and entertainment. 


Ok, enough of my criticism of this book and Mr. De Waal’s opinions!  I love the book!


He is certainly aware of the differences between humans and the other apes. While apes do practice policing and “rudimentary forms of community concern”, it is in that radical step up from personal interests that “human morality begins to depart from anything else encountered thus far”.


And this is, I believe the essential point of the book.


We ARE unique, but we are ALSO apes.  We CAN be aggressive and violent, but we can ALSO be peacemakers.  As an atheist, I can say that we HAVE evolved. We HAVE developed morality and this morality has evolved over time and in different environments according to the needs and desires of specific peoples.  Caring for each other, mourning our dead, helping those in need are traits that came from within and from without, but not from above.


This is a book that should be read more than once!






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